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Birmingham is not a ‘contaminated brand’, says children’s chief

Birmingham is not a ‘contaminated brand’, says children’s chief

🕔06.Jan 2014

As an expert panel descends on Birmingham City Council to investigate the city’s besieged children’s services, the Chamberlain Files brings you an exclusive interview with the department’s Strategic Director, Peter Hay.


Three experts arrive in Birmingham today to begin work on a review that will decide whether social services for vulnerable children should remain in city council hands or be transferred to an independent trust.

The triumvirate, led by Professor Julian Le Grand, has been asked by Children’s Minister Ed Timpson to assess the council’s latest plan to turn around the failing department, which has been struggling under Whitehall ‘special measures’ for almost five years.

Chamberlain Files lead blogger Paul Dale spoke to Birmingham strategic director of children’s services, Peter Hay, and cabinet member Brigid Jones ahead of Professor Le Grand’s visit:

Children’s social services directors in Birmingham tend not to last too long before they retire from the front line, battered and bruised by the pressure of an unrelentingly challenging job.

Colin Tucker, who cut his teeth at Sandwell social services, was appointed in the summer of 2009 and left barely two years later.

Peter Duxbury, former director of social care in Lincolnshire, had an even shorter tenure. He joined the city council in April 2012 and departed 16 months later.

Mr Tucker and Mr Duxbury arrived armed with recovery plans for the failing department, which they insisted would work. Both left ‘by mutual agreement’.

Almost five years on, Birmingham children’s social services continues to be scarred by horrific child deaths. The names of Toni Ann Byfield, Khyra Ishaq and Keanu Williams serve as a reminder of a failing department that is still classified as ‘inadequate’ and remains under government special measures.

The hot seat is occupied now by Peter Hay, a highly respected figure in the social care world who as the council’s strategic director for adults and communities faced down politicians by insisting on closing unfit old people’s homes and replacing them with sheltered accommodation and independent living at home.

Mr Hay was also in charge of Birmingham’s children’s services more than a decade ago before the department was amalgamated with schools. His period as director coincided with the last time Birmingham children’s social care received a satisfactory report from inspectors.

If anyone can live with this can of worms, therefore, it surely is Peter Hay.

Since being appointed he’s been refreshingly honest, admitting that Birmingham simply doesn’t have enough “great social workers” and that standards across the board are mixed.

But even the famously calm Mr Hay must have been a little rattled at the unprecedented attack on Birmingham in October by Sir Michael Wilshire, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector.

Wilshire laid into Birmingham, describing it as one of the worst places in the developed world for children to grow up. Warming to his theme, he added that the city was a “national disgrace” and blamed a “failure of corporate governance on a grand scale”.

The attack raised suspicion that the Government was planning to take responsibility for running children’s social services away from the council and put an independent trust in charge, as is happening in Doncaster.

The possibility appeared even more likely when Children’s Minister Ed Timpson announced the cancellation of a planned Ofsted inspection of Birmingham social services in favour of a visit by three experts.

Two of the experts, Professor Julian Le Grand and Alan Wood, director of children’s services at Hackney, produced a report for Education Secretary Michael Gove criticising a “culture of failure” at Doncaster. Mr Gove agreed to hand responsibility for the service to an independent trust.

The triumvirate will advise the Minister on whether the council’s improvement plans are sufficient and “what alternatives might be appropriate”.

Their report will include analysis on the “viability” of Mr Hay’s plan to turn the service around and the “structures most likely to support sustained improvement”. The report could also recommend “alternative options”, thought to include establishing a trust.

Mr Hay says he thinks Birmingham has suffered “reputational damage” but is not a “contaminated brand”. He points out that the council is currently processing 39 applications from people wishing to be social workers in Birmingham, and he has been a constant presence at careers fairs up and down the country trying to sell the city as a “challenging but rewarding” place to work.

It seems that the city council’s Labour leadership, in place since May 2012, is quietly confident that Birmingham will avoid the fate of Doncaster. Sir Albert Bore, the council leader, and Brigid Jones, the children’s cabinet member, are said to be surprisingly upbeat about the future.

Mr Hay points out that the Education Secretary isn’t finding it easy to establish a trust. There are all sorts of legal and HR problems, not to mention the cost of establishing new arrangements. And even if Birmingham did have a trust foisted upon it, there would still be a shortage of social workers and budgetary constraints.

Mr Hay and Cllr Jones hope to impress Professor Le Grand with the latest in a line of recovery plans – an Integrated Transformation Strategy. Best not to mention, though, that this grand plan bears a striking resemblance to Colin Tucker’s grand plan four years ago.

In a nutshell, the integrated strategy involves bringing together all of the agencies to work in a joined up way. Instead of social services, health visitors, schools, GPs and police toiling away silo-like separately, all will team up in an effort to intervene at an earlier stage when children are suspected of becoming vulnerable.

It certainly makes sense. Almost every Serious Case Review across the country has concluded that a failure of agencies to speak to each other and pass on information led to unnecessary child deaths.

There are other issues, of course. In Birmingham the deaths of Khyra Ishaq and Keanu Williams might have been avoided had social workers and education officials understood their powers properly and intervened at an early stage.

Mr Tucker proposed setting up Integrated Family Support Teams (IFSTs) to bring all of the agencies together in a structured way. The scheme never really got off the ground because it didn’t have sufficient political support and wasn’t funded properly, according to Cllr Jones.

“IFSTs weren’t properly resourced and were only ever a tiny part of the overall system. Schools were asked to pay for them but were given very little accountability. They were given little oversight on what was going on. We never had a buy-in from the schools.

“All the agency boundaries were different, there were 16 different safeguarding support hubs and they didn’t align to the district boundaries. Trying to join this up proved to be an absolute nightmare.”

She points out that, despite public spending cuts, the current Labour administration has managed to find a one-off £10 million investment for children’s social services plus an additional £12 million spread over the next two years. This is something of a sea change for a council that has spent at least four years claiming that the inadequacy of children’s social services has nothing to do with a shortage of money.

“Things are starting to feel very different to the way they felt over the past 18 months. We have a forward looking plan in a way we haven’t had previously. Our partners are all on board and it’s taken a long time to get there, but we have extra resources and that will make a difference,” Cllr Jones added.

The Integrated Transformation Strategy appears to be IFSTs with nobs on. There will be an integrated strategic commissioning board, a forum for multi-agency decision making about the use of resources. This will be aligned with Birmingham’s 10 district committees, allowing councillors to have political oversight.

A senior civil servant, Stephen Rimmer, has been appointed to drive collaboration among the agencies, particularly the police who have been criticised in the past for taking a cavalier approach to attending vulnerable children case conferences. The council says it will use the Local Government Association and private sector partners to create an “innovation club to challenge existing thinking and inject creativity to develop innovative solutions and approaches”.

There’s clearly a lot happening, but will it work?

Mr Hay thinks the trust option is off the table for the time being. “There are all sorts of issues over setting up a trust. HR, legal, staffing, procurement. It isn’t as easy as some people think. Care orders are made by councils, that’s the law. How do you move away from that?

“A trust wouldn’t make some sort of bubble that would automatically put the world right. It wouldn’t address the national shortage of social workers or the financial strains.

“What we are proposing, a lot of it is what other people are doing and doing well. This isn’t a great big brand new idea.”

But however many clever new structures are formed, safeguarding children usually comes down to a simple matter of whether social workers, teachers, GPs and police officers make the right decisions at the right time. Usually they do, but sometimes they get it wrong with disastrous results.

Mr Hay gives the example of a head teacher who rings social services three or four times because he is concerned about a child. “Sometimes the response is excellent. Sometimes it’s shambolic.”

However, he ends our conversation on an upbeat note.

“I feel optimistic. You won’t get this right if you don’t have a clear line of sight politically. The answer isn’t just resources. This is a political priority. You have a programme of cuts to many services but this service is getting investment.

“Professor Le Grand and his team have to be certain it will stick this time and it will be different. We have to be clear. We can’t just do what we have always done. We have to make change stick, and we haven’t been very good at that in the past.”

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